Visiting the Western Caribbean: Water, Water, Everywhere

Last December, I went on a cruise to the western Caribbean with a couple of family members — my cousin and her son. We sailed out of Miami via Norwegian Cruise Line and visited several countries: Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. Sadly, we didn’t encounter any swashbucklers or mermaids, but we still managed to enjoy ourselves. As a writer, I’m always looking for opportunities to learn more about the world by experiencing other places and cultures. I usually accomplish this by living vicariously through books. On the occasions that I can do that in person, however, I try to keep my eyes open for moments that may result in a creative spark or a change in perspective. The following is a travel journal, documenting some of what I experienced.

Honduras. Every driver in Honduras must have a PhD: a degree in “pot hole driving.” This was a joke our tour guide told us as we jumbled and bounced from the port in Coxen Hole (Roatan Bay Islands) toward the Gumbalimba Animal Sanctuary and Nature Preserve. Prior to our shore excursion, I remember having read a review where the person wrote about how “upsetting it was to see so much poverty.” As we drove through town, I paid special attention to our surroundings. People lived in small homes with concrete walls and tin roofs. I’ve been in other countries where this is the norm. People build their homes out of the materials that are most readily available. While that reviewer saw poverty everywhere, I saw people living out their everyday lives: sellers hawking fresh coconuts and pineapple, boys casting their fishing lines into the sea, a woman hanging laundry out to dry in front of her home. This was no metropolis with skyscrapers and a Starbucks on every corner, but it was a thriving community far from poverty.

Gumbalimba (AKA Gumbo Jimbo’s when we couldn’t remember the name) was a really cool experience. We saw iguanas, monkeys, parrots, and bats. We learned about the medicinal properties of some of the native flora. For example, did you know chewing cinnamon leaves can help with indigestion? Our tour guide offered us leaves to chew on, and while I don’t normally gnaw on strange leaves, I trusted her. Oddly enough, the leaf tasted like cinnamon. Who would’ve guessed? And we also crossed a suspension bridge that hung 30 feet over a lake despite all three of us being afraid of heights. My nephew said there were snapping turtles in the water, but I was too busy mentally willing the bridge to stop swaying that I missed out on seeing them. My cousin also missed the turtles, as she forged far ahead of us in a blaze of sheer panic.

Belize. Our stop in Belize was Harvest Caye, which is a private island owned and operated by Norwegian but employing only Belizeans. While it appeared to be an idyllic paradise with an expansive swimming pool, beautiful-looking beach (we discovered later that the sand wasn’t great and agreed that the beaches in California were better), and multiple bars, restaurants, and shops, the place just didn’t provide us with a real glimpse of Belizean culture. So at my insistence, we ended up taking a shore excursion to the mainland where we visited the two towns of Mango Creek and Independence Village. As we drove around, our tour guide covered some of the history of Belize, the four main ethnic groups with distinct cultures (the Creole, Mestizos, Maya, and Garifuna), and some insight into what life was like along the coast about 100 years ago (i.e. how hand-carved canoes were essential in providing food). She even taught us a Creole song. We tried to sing along with her, but we were clearly very bad at it because of how much she laughed at our pronunciations. Still, she seemed to appreciate our attempt.

At the end of the tour, we got to meet some of the people who lived in Mango Creek and Independence. There were a few small shops, a tiny bar serving up local rum punch, a canoe builder who explained how to properly carve one out of wood, and a group of Creole singers, drummers, and dancers that encouraged us to join in. More pessimistic people would view this as a “tourist trap,” but I saw it as an opportunity to contribute to their economy (souvenirs) and dance to some genuine Creole music. I mean, when am I ever going to get another opportunity to show off my lack of rhythm on an international stage?

Guatemala. The port where our ship docked was originally a commercial one (still is) but recently modified a few years ago to accommodate large cruise ships. Our shore excursion took us on a bus ride along Rio Dulce and toward Lake Izabal, where we hopped onto a speed boat to first visit a local restaurant for snacks. I got to try local Guatemalan coffee, which was very strong but delicious, followed by mini-sandwiches and bean-filled tostadas. The ladies who worked there were all really friendly. They didn’t speak much English, so I got to practice my Spanish! I was very rusty but managed to get my food without creating any international incidents.

With our snacks consumed, we hopped back into the speedboats and zipped toward the main event attraction, the old Spanish fort, Castillo de San Felipe. Established in 1536, the fort helped to protect Lake Izabal and the surrounding communities from pirate attacks and plunders. As we stood outside of the fort, our tour guide held up a map as he explained the layout inside. While this was happening, there were a lot of Guatemalans going in and out of the fort. Castillo de San Felipe is located inside of a park popular for picnicking, swimming, and fishing. We happened to be there on New Year’s Day, so there were many families on holiday. Despite the crowds and our group’s appearance (it was very clear that we were tourists), people were incredibly friendly and courteous to us. In fact, as our tour guide explained the history of the fort, many people passing by our group actually ducked under the map so they wouldn’t obscure our view or interrupt the tour guide. I guarantee you that if a similar tour were happening in Hollywood, the local denizens wouldn’t care at all about getting in the way.

The tour overall was informative and felt like an adventure at times, as we zipped across the emerald waters of Rio Dulce and sat on the cannons of Castillo de San Felipe. We ended our day at the souvenir shops by the port where all the vendors were aggressive but not to the point of being rude. I was a little unnerved by it all, but when I discovered cruise ships only stop there 3 times a month, I understood why sales were so important to them. Besides, they were all willing to haggle. My cousin and I played the game. We probably lost in the long run, but we had fun trying.

Mexico. We first visited Cozumel, but since our submarine excursion got cancelled due to high winds, we spent the day shopping for souvenirs. The entire port felt like one gigantic mall, and honestly, didn’t feel all that different from any place we could visit in the U.S. Not too exciting. It wasn’t until we arrived in Costa Maya the next day where things picked up again. The port itself felt very touristy. If Disneyland had a section inspired by the ancient Mayans, this is what it would’ve looked like.

Thankfully, we didn’t spend much time in the port itself. We took a tour bus to the ancient Mayan city of Kohunlich, famous for its Temple of Masks. Exploring the stone ruins of homes, temples, and other structures that were thousands of years old felt surreal. As I traversed the harrowing steps of the Temple of the King, the realization really hit me that I was following the same path as the ancient Mayans. Those very stones were steeped in history. What kind of moments had they witnessed? What kind of triumphs and tragedies took place in front of those steps? At least one thing is for certain. They witnessed my fear of heights and my pathetic descent using my hands, feet, and bottom. My nephew witnessed this as well, and if stones could laugh, they would have probably joined him.

We also got to stand on the remnants of an old stone podium in the middle of the largest plaza where archaeologists believed the head priest would address a crowd of thousands; we walked across the field where the Mayan Ball Game was played, with the victors receiving the greatest honor of being sacrificed to the gods; and we studied pools of water originally built as reservoirs but have now transformed into mini-ecosystems complete with mysterious fish whose emergence has stumped biologists. It was a wonderful tour capped by a final stop at the Temple of the Masks, where we gazed at the intricate, hand-carved reddish faces still guarding Kohunlich after being abandoned for almost a millenium.

Onboard. You’d be amazed at how much you could learn about the world while on the ship, too. The idea that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners in the country we call home isn’t brand new, but I was reminded that people from other countries can share the same view. When my cousin and I took my nephew to the teen center to sign up for potential activities (alas, he ultimately refused to do any of them — pffft, teenagers), a Romanian staff member asked us where we were from. I answered with “Los Angeles,” but she wasn’t satisfied. She looked at us with a raised eyebrow and said, “No, where are you really from?” And that wasn’t the only time it happened on the cruise. No one was satisfied until we answered with “The Philippines.” Other fun and cringe-worthy moments:

My nephew wandered ahead of me and my cousin, and a photographer asked him, “Is that your family over there?” He was pointing at a group of Chinese people in front of us. My nephew was so taken aback, he responded with silence and a stare that might have pierced the guy’s very soul (a teenager’s special ability) if it weren’t for my cousin stepping in to answer the question with an emphatic, “No.”

A member of the staff in the photo gallery thought we were Indonesian. At one point, so did I, because others asked us the same question throughout the cruise.

Even fellow Filipinos got on the bandwagon of stereotyping. A Filipina casino hostess asked me how I got my name because it sounded “girly.” When I told her it was Welsh in origin, she said, “You don’t look Welsh at all.” No, I don’t. And I don’t have to be Welsh to have a Welsh name, either. I mean, Beyonce and Jay-Z’s daughter is named Blue Ivy, but does she resemble a sapphire plant? Come on, now.

These incidents were few and far between, and the vast majority of people we interacted with weren’t always so ignorant (if they were, they hid it well). We had one fun moment where we committed a cultural faux pas, but not against a person. Rather, it was against a type of dessert.

One evening, there was a mysterious dessert on the menu: “Dark Cherry Clafoutis.” Now, my family loves to eat, so encountering an unfamiliar food was rather exciting. What is “clafoutis,” exactly? The description sounded like a nice, cake-like desert with cherries and vanilla ice cream on top. My cousin and I both wanted to order it, but there was one nagging problem: neither of us knew how to pronounce “clafoutis.” And without any internet on the ship, we couldn’t look it up before the waiter came to take our order. So, my cousin and I decided to play “The Name Game.” We devised ways to get our waiter to say it out loud, and then we would simply follow his lead.

First, the waiter took my nephew’s order, who got something ridiculously easy to pronounce, like “chocolate cake.” Then he turned to my cousin, who opened the menu, pointed at “Dark Cherry Clafoutis” and said, “I would like this, please.” Now, most waiters would say the item out loud in order to confirm your choice. This waiter, however, has played the name game before. He merely nodded at my cousin before looking over to me.

Now it was my turn. I, too, pointed at the menu but tried a different tactic. I said, “I would also like the Dark Cherry…” and left a nice long pause for the waiter to fill-in-the-blank. The pause dangled in the air like a fish stuck on a hook, flopping around in desperation until finally dying a horrid, gasping death. The waiter nodded.

Clearly, our waiter was an expert at the name game and one not to be trifled with. We lost, but “clafoutis” (which we incorrectly pronounced as KLAH — FOO — TIS) became our word for the rest of the cruise whenever we needed to describe something strange, sordid, or even lewd. But hey, at least the dessert turned out to be delicious.

Cruise Clafoutis

The infamous Dark Cherry Clafoutis

I love travelling, and it’s one of my life goals to see as much of the world as possible. Cruising may not always be an ideal way to travel, but it does provide opportunities to experience history, culture, and even wildlife all wrapped into a neat and convenient package. We had an awesome time, and this trip certainly gave me a lot of inspiration for future writing projects.

May your own travels be just as eye-opening, and more importantly, fun!

Fun like clafoutis.


Title Quote: “Water, water, everywhere, / And all the boards did shrink; / Water, water, everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

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